Monument to an ego

Judy Walgren

Scott Ginsburg leans forward in the booth and tears a piece from the crisp white butcher paper covering the table. He has left his wallet in the car, he explains to the waiter, so he asks whether it's OK if he just writes out his American Express card number to take care of the check. The waiter nods.

This is Lombardi Mare in Addison, one of Ginsburg's favorite restaurants. And everyone here seems to know him. They treat him like a celebrity, which, in some rarefied business circles, he is. Or at least he was, when he was the boy wonder of Dallas-based Evergreen Media Corp. and owned dozens of radio stations across the country in major media markets. Ginsburg also became notorious when he drew on-air invective from shock jock Howard Stern after one of Evergreen's Chicago stations dumped Stern's show in 1993 following a dismal ratings period.

At Lombardi's, Ginsburg picks up a purple crayon from a small glass on the table and scrawls his charge card number across the paper. With narrow eyes, sandy blond receding hair, and a face that hints at boyishness, Ginsburg can charm with an affable, disarming demeanor. But it isn't long before his roiling intensity peeks through. He paces and fidgets, delivering his speech in rapid, staccato bursts. Hastily, he adds the expiration date to his artwork and hands it to the waiter.

Minutes later, the waiter returns with the card voucher for his signature. Ginsburg seems to relish the transaction. "You know me," he jokes, swatting away a question about the volume of cash flowing through his latest venture. "I'm not very good with numbers."

Maybe he isn't. Still, he somehow kept his American Express card number straight in his head. And he somehow managed to amass a personal fortune that Securities and Exchange Commission filings peg at somewhere around $375 million.

The road to his riches is no secret. Ginsburg, 46, heaped his wealth by building from scratch -- deal by shrewdly negotiated deal -- what was perhaps the most successful radio empire in the history of the medium. His historic run was cut short, however, after he combined his media holdings with those of Dallas business titan Tom Hicks under the name Chancellor Media Corp. The business culture that emerged from their marriage proved too stifling for two vigorously distended egos.

Yet recent history seems to have vindicated Ginsburg when Chancellor Media stock plummeted after his departure. "I left because I thought it was the appropriate time for me to step out and let somebody else try to create a vision," he says, a wry smile drawing up his face. "And the results speak for themselves."

Ginsburg is on to creating new visions, ones he's certain will speak with the same authority as those left to mumble in his wake. He hopes to become an impresario of sorts, a showman a la P.T. Barnum. And he has unleashed his instincts and considerable loot in a language the city can easily understand: a restaurant.

But Ginsburg's goal isn't simply to rival the best of the city's 6,000-plus eateries, such as The Mansion, The French Room, and The Riviera. Ginsburg wants to elbow his way into the cadre of the most renowned establishments in the country, even in the world. He calls his creation Voltaire, named for the 18th-century French writer and philosopher. "He was a change agent," says Ginsburg. "He questioned the status quo." Ginsburg rattles off a few of his favorite Voltaire quotes: "Common sense is not so common." "The best is the enemy of the good." His plans call for rendering these bons mots in oil at the base of Voltaire's 28-foot bar. And it seems Ginsburg is sparing no expense to ensure that these pearls afflict the hearts of Dallas' see-and-be-seen set before they creep across the national landscape like culinary sound bites.

"Voltaire will be the most expensive restaurant built in Dallas. Probably in the top five in the country," says Khanh Dao, who once described herself as Ginsburg's "significant other," while her business card describes her as managing partner. But what does this brash boasting mean? Six, eight, 10 million dollars? "I'll let you fill in the blank," she says.

Ginsburg isn't interested in filling in blanks either. "I have no interest in talking about money," he says. Yet money is all some in Dallas seem interested in talking about as rumors of the restaurant's ruinously high cost seep out. In March 1998, Ginsburg acquired the Harper's Restaurant spot on Keller Springs Road and the Dallas North Tollway and began gutting the 18-month-old structure under a veil of secrecy. This prime patch of land alone has a market value of $3.5 million.

"I want to be judged for something other than how much money was put in," Ginsburg says. "I want to be judged by the feel it gives off...not that it was a multimillion-dollar restaurant that somebody had a wild hair and decided to put up."  

But on the surface, Ginsburg's lofty ambition seems to be little more than a personal icon spawned by a wild hair. And like some modern-day Candide, the naive title character in Voltaire's famous tale, Ginsburg seems to want only the best possible restaurant in the best of all possible worlds. Until you delve deeper.

Scott Ginsburg's foray into the restaurant business doesn't surprise those who know him and have followed his moves over the years. They say Voltaire will be a monument to his considerable ego, a stamp he feels compelled to make on the Dallas cultural landscape that rivals the one he left on its business landscape. "This is his Bentley. This is his jet," says a longtime business associate. "This is his town. He's going to be in that restaurant continuously."

Such charges of personal-monument-building may have merit. Just months after he began dismantling the building that is to become Voltaire, Ginsburg snapped up the Town North Porsche dealership off Central Expressway in Richardson for an estimated $2.5 million, according to court records. He is now in the process of relocating the dealership to Plano Parkway, where he's erecting a new structure from the ground up. He'll call it simply The Porsche Store. At 43,000 square feet, Ginsburg boasts, it will be the largest Porsche dealership in the country when it opens in December.

"Let me suggest that I don't have a small ego," snaps Ginsburg when asked why he is entering the restaurant business. "What drives American ingenuity is ego."

Some who rode with him on his radio wave claim his ego can be blistering. In particular, he directed abusive bursts of criticism at underlings, which at times led to abrupt exits among his staff. They say he's even been known to publicly scold waiters in restaurants. "He can be a screaming asshole," says a onetime colleague. "A type-A control freak. He's highly intelligent, but socially, he's a friggin' deviate."

Hinting at a more even temperament, Ginsburg says his ambitions were far more pedestrian when he first purchased the restaurant. Originally, he bought it for his two teenage children -- whom he refers to as his only partners in the deal -- to create a hamburger joint "so the kids always had a place to eat if dad isn't available."

"Of course," says the onetime colleague. "That sounds a little bit more humble than "'Hey, I want to build this edifice to my penis.'"

Ginsburg says his visions for the plot changed only when he realized the potential of the location. With luxury housing just a chip shot away and office construction on the rise, Ginsburg believed the site was an epicenter of considerable vibrancy. So he embarked on a meticulous planning and design process, relentlessly mulling over every detail during development. Visions for the menu and the restaurant were exclusively his, though he says he granted his hand-picked project planners flexibility in interpreting those visions.

His aim is to create a seamless experience, one that through choices of color, light, ambience, service, and cuisine strikes a perfect balance between comfort and charisma. The kitchen, with a staff of 45, is equipped with checkpoints to ensure mediocrity never infects the plate. For service, Ginsburg is developing a rigorous program he calls "Voltaire University," a system of continuous training for all service staff. To dazzle, he's installing pieces of art in striking settings to grip his guests with a sense of marvel.

"This is built from the ground up," says managing partner Dao. "Every angle of the restaurant is thought through. If you want to really make people believe in what you believe, you have to appeal to their senses. We're going to appeal to taste, smell, sound."

And light, color, and air. When Voltaire opens sometime in September, the 12,000-square-foot, 335-seat restaurant will have a ventilation system designed to maximize clean airflow while remaining virtually invisible. The lighting system (which during the day depends heavily on natural light) costs close to $1 million (not including special fixtures) and offers enormous flexibility within the dining spaces, in some cases permitting illumination from above, below, or the sides. Sound is controlled through strategically placed sound-absorptive surfaces, which Ginsburg contends will permit the space to generate natural ambient energy while deadening the noise that can make table conversation difficult.

Voltaire will have five wine stewards; a chef from Manhattan (George Papadopolous) who will craft French-girded, American-inspired, Asian-kissed cuisine; and a service manager (Kent Ingram) with a résumé stretching from Baby Routh to The Mansion.  

But birthing this vision has been a long labor, one fraught with problems almost from conception. Once Ginsburg forked over the cash and got inside the structure, he discovered a building that was shoddily assembled. Almost no part of the former Harper's Restaurant, part of a chain of casual American grills, remains.

"The building was literally falling apart," says Charles Daboub of Charles Daboub Design Inc., the project's original architect. "There were bolts missing in the structural steel. The brick wasn't tied back...As we would remove a portion of a wall, the rest of it would fall."

Daboub, who designed the first Planet Hollywood in New York City and has designed some 30 Hard Rock Cafés around the world, was brought on board in March 1998. But by August, he, too, became a structural problem as disputes bubbled between him and Ginsburg, and all work ceased. "We started out with a designer who couldn't understand the vision," says Ginsburg.

But Daboub says he could never get a clear picture of the concept from Ginsburg. "The only mission statement was that he wanted it to be one of the top restaurants in the country," he says. And when he submitted plans and sketches to Ginsburg for approval, Ginsburg voiced his disapproval by refusing to pay him. So Daboub slapped a lien on the property.

Ginsburg, in turn, slapped him with a lawsuit, charging that Daboub submitted faulty engineering plans and did not complete the work specified in the contract. Daboub has countersued, claiming he is owed some $92,330 for services rendered on the project. The case is set to go before a jury on October 4.

In the midst of the dispute, Ginsburg hooked up with renowned Dallas restaurant designer Paul Draper. Their thinking immediately clicked. Draper had executed distinctive designs for such restaurants as Lombardi Mare, Seventeen Seventeen, the Crescent Club, Anzu, and Sevy's. But Ginsburg gave him little concrete direction initially, Draper says, except that he wanted an innovative design to reflect the uniqueness of the food.

"Give me something no one else has ever had," Ginsburg recalls telling him. "We started out with an idea and said, 'This will not be stereotyped.'"

Draper says the space confronted him with a variety of challenges, the most significant of which was how to create a profound sense of comfort without diluting the energy level. He encased the exterior in huge limestone panels with steel accents, giving it a warm but striking look. He broke the dining room into four distinct dining spaces plus an immense bar.

Using a variety of materials, Draper strove to integrate the various spaces while providing them with distinct focal points to make each room a desirable dining location. The rooms will be filled with custom-made Italian seating. Floors alternate between stone, wood, and carpeting. The wine cellar is clad in cherry-wood panels.

The central dining space, which features a skylight-framed 28-foot ceiling, has a large, stone fireplace. Anchoring the space is an exhibition kitchen, partitioned from the dining area by an array of etched glass panels, in front of which sits a "chef's table." Just outside a row of windows shielding a raised dining space on the east wall is a 30-foot-long, 10-foot-high water wall crusted in black granite.

But perhaps Voltaire's most striking elements are what some consider symbols of Ginsburg's egotism. The entrance, separated from the dining rooms with sheer screen sculpted out of fabric and wood, is topped with a soaring tower, from which drops a large white doughnut. From the hole of the doughnut will dangle a specially commissioned chandelier by famed lighting designer Ingo Maurer, whose designs illuminate the Munich subway system and the Tel Aviv Opera House. The piece is an explosion of broken dishes with rays of light escaping through the shattered crockery. It's said to express Maurer's love of slow-motion implosions captured on film.

"I would call him the rock star of lighting design right now," says Draper. "I would hope that our use of it, coupled with the difficulty and cost of getting it...will create something of a signature for this restaurant."

Draper was struck by the piece after he came across a photo of an identical Mauler design featured in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. With Ginsburg's blessing, he immediately sought to acquire it.

Before Maurer would consent to crafting a duplicate, Draper had to present him with detailed plans of the restaurant. Once he was assured that the spot was a suitable setting, Maurer agreed and began to build the piece in his lighting factory in Germany. The chandelier is so expensive, neither Ginsburg nor Draper will comment on its cost.  

The dining space, hooded in copper mesh, features another striking focal point: Ginsburg's 17-piece collection of glass sculptures by artist Dale Chihuly, regarded as the world's premier glass artist. "That would be, I believe, the largest private [Chihuly] collection in the state of Texas," boasts Ginsburg. Best known for his delicate, evocative sea forms, Chihuly has had his work exhibited in museums around the world, including a 35-piece permanent installation of flowers and sea forms in the atrium of the Dallas Museum of Art.

Voltaire's mode of displaying these sculptures is innovative, to say the least. The sculptures will be tucked into the ceiling of a tiny nook of the central dining room. Housed within a case, the sculptures will be arranged on the surface of a glass plate, with light cast to create the illusion that the pieces are floating above the guests in an aquatic display. And the case, which has its own air-filtration system to eliminate dust, hangs low, creating just a 7-foot ceiling line and bringing the sculptures close to diners. To keep the display fresh, Ginsburg says, he intends to acquire more Chihuly pieces and rotate the collection.

Ginsburg hints at other pieces of art that Draper is involved in directing, pieces on which he won't comment. "We've got to have some surprises," says Draper.

"Creative people and I get along very well," Ginsburg claims. "I can give them a bigger palette than they're used to having."

Some doubt that Ginsburg's bold restaurant is workable, at least in a strictly financial sense. Dao says they project Voltaire's annual sales will be roughly $10 million, which would put it right at the top of the city's most successful restaurants such as Del Frisco's and Cool River Café -- quite a mark to strive for right out of the chute.

But Dallas restaurant consultant Matthew Mabel, who has known Ginsburg for years, says he wouldn't bet on Voltaire's breakaway success.

"Experience tells me that these are deals that longtime industry professionals would never touch," he says. "But sometimes the people that don't know better do them and they work. I wouldn't have picked that site and that concept and that budget in Dallas in 1999." Mabel says Ginsburg's concept is exactly the opposite of what conventional restaurant wisdom dictates. Sites framed by high-traffic thoroughfares are more suitable for moderately priced, high-volume venues. Destination restaurants like Voltaire, with its $50-$65 estimated per-person check average, are more appropriate for off-the-beaten path locales, which adds to the dining allure. "The most expensive restaurant in town doesn't need a 90,000 car count, because people will seek it out," Mabel adds.

Yet Ginsburg's move fits neatly into Voltaire's overriding philosophy, which is to question everything. "You don't have to come out of any specific industry to put together a great restaurant," he says. "You have to have a sense of what the right thing to do is."

And Ginsburg says his sense was honed through years of relentless air travel as he scoured the country assembling deals and acquisitions for his radio empire. Over 10 years of constant travel, he says, he became hypersensitive to space and service.

"I've spent so many years squished row-to-row, seat-to-seat...that I became quite claustrophobic," he says. "It just became 'what are you going to do and what are you going to spill on me this time?'" The experience made him realize the vitality of attractive, comfortable environments. But his life wasn't always such a jet-set rush.

Originally from Sioux City, Iowa, Ginsburg attended college in Washington, D.C., where he earned a B.A. and a law degree from Georgetown University before passing the D.C. bar. But Ginsburg says that he had no desire to practice law and that as soon as he got his license, he chucked it in the trash.

Instead, he immersed himself in the political and legislative process, working as an aid to former Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) and as staff director for two Senate subcommittees. The experience proved invaluable when Ginsburg sought to influence the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a bit of legislation he shrewdly exploited to pump up Evergreen's unprecedented growth rate.

Ginsburg picked up his first station in Miami in the early '80s and founded Statewide Broadcasting Inc. and later H & G Communications Inc., operating just a handful of radio stations.

In 1988, Ginsburg moved to Dallas because of DFW airport, and founded Evergreen Media Corp. with six stations. He built the company into a radio powerhouse by embarking on a vigorous national acquisition campaign. By 1996 Ginsburg had a portfolio of some 34 radio stations, giving his company a presence in every one of the country's top 10 markets.  

But it was a brush with Tom Hicks that changed the course of his business life. In September 1997, Evergreen merged with Hicks' Chancellor Broadcasting in a $2.4 billion stock swap to create Chancellor Media, which quickly became the nation's largest radio broadcast company. The move put Hicks in the chairman's slot while Ginsburg assumed the role of president and chief executive officer.

Over the course of that year, Chancellor Media shares tripled in value, making it by far the best-performing stock in the radio industry. "I'll take my record and put it up against anybody else's," Ginsburg boasts. "We did lots of innovative work. And I had a unique talent to build the company and make it work."

Because the Telecom Act loosened radio ownership restrictions, Ginsburg was able to penetrate major radio markets by forming what he calls "clusters" -- groups of up to eight FM and AM stations in the same market that could streamline operations and maximize profits.

But by April 1998, a rift developed between Hicks and Ginsburg. Hicks wanted to dispense with Ginsburg's focus on major markets and diversify into television, billboards, and medium-market radio stations. So he yanked Ginsburg's CEO designation, promising him a significant role in the recast media company. Instead, Ginsburg took a walk, taking with him a severance package reportedly worth more than $59 million in cash, stock, and long-term consulting fees.

The stock market didn't take kindly to Ginsburg's exit, and it pounded Chancellor's stock immediately. It didn't help that the company was hit with a second-quarter 1998 loss after writing down Ginsburg's compensation package.

Chancellor (since renamed AMFM Inc.) never recaptured the Wall Street luster it had under Ginsburg. "[Hicks] didn't understand the foundation that I built," says Ginsburg, referring to his strategy of picking up groups of stations in major markets.

Ginsburg has parlayed his radio expertise into other ventures as well. Last year, he invested $11 million in Digital Generation Systems, a San Francisco-based digital network service provider, where he is chairman of the board. Ginsburg is also chairman and CEO of StarGuide Digital Network Inc., in which he acquired the controlling interest from televangelist Pat Robertson. Through this company, Ginsburg plans to exploit a technology that delivers live-action video from the Internet through digital subscriber lines.

"He has definitely been able to look at certain business landscapes and decide how to redecorate it so as to create the greatest amount of equity for himself and his constituents," says one observer who had a recent financial clash with Ginsburg. "But when somebody gets ready to spend $100 for a meal, I don't think anybody is going to feel all that persuaded to make a contribution to Scott Ginsburg's new holdings."

George Papadopolous is relaxing on a bench just outside his test kitchen in a North Dallas church after completing a menu tasting with Ginsburg and designer Paul Draper. Papadopolous remembers his days in the kitchen of some of New York's finest hotels, and he holds his head down, his hands always in motion, as if he's still assembling plates of food. "I didn't see the chef for three years," he says. "I couldn't look up. All you could hear was the yelling and screaming."

His speech shoots in swift streams, with lots of graceful lunges and jabs -- an oratorical prizefighter. "I'm a troubleshooter. I know the menu like the back of my hand...I know when the ticket comes in, the order goes out. I know exactly what's going on. So, when this breaks, or he drops that, that's where I am. All over."

It's easy to see why Ginsburg took a liking to the prematurely graying 30-year-old Papadopolous, whom he approached in the kitchen of Chez es Saada in Lower Manhattan with an offer to come to Dallas after eating the chef's food. He's easily as intense and determined as Ginsburg, even as cocky. When Papadopolous took a look at the blueprints for Voltaire's kitchen, he told Ginsburg to fire his designers. He would build the kitchen himself.

Structured in the traditional French fashion, Voltaire's kitchen is a full 4,000 square feet with separate stations to butcher meat, prepare sauces, and prep food. There's a separate pot-washing area. And the cook line, with all Jade equipment, was custom-made in a seamless line to maximize flow.

Like Ginsburg, Papadopolous is vague about numbers. "It's a million-dollar kitchen," he says, and then quickly corrects himself. "I'm not saying that's the figure. But it's a million-dollar kitchen. It's up there."

Classically trained with a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, Papadopolous has worked at Peacock Alley in New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel and has prepared dinner for the likes of Princess Diana and her entourage at The Carlyle Hotel. At Chez es Saada, his menu was a merging of French with Moroccan and Asian cuisines.  

How was Ginsburg able to persuade Papadopolous to chuck New York sophistication for the vast stretches of North Texas prairie? "I understood the caliber of the restaurant," Papadopolous says. "I knew it wasn't some nickel-and-dime mom-and-pop place...I know that I can take two days to make a sauce from scratch. I know that I can order foie gras and make a true terrine. He's giving me the ability to do that."

To feed this state-of-the-art kitchen, Papadopolous has developed a distinct menu that, instead of being overtly fused, subtly mingles French platforms with Asian embellishments: wasabi-infused crab cake in lemongrass beurre blanc; sautéed coho salmon in kaffir beurre noir; kobe beef carpaccio in jasmine-soy essence over baby greens.

Perhaps it's just another fusion folio. But unlike many fusion menus sprung in Dallas, such as those at Seventeen Seventeen or the Green Room or The Mansion, this one has no Southwestern influences, a characteristic Papadopolous wasn't interested in incorporating. "The foie gras rocks," Ginsburg says to Papadopolous in the test kitchen after forking a slice of duck liver with black currants in a mandarin miso sauce.

But many observers think that no matter what the menu, Voltaire may be too much of a beast to tame. "It all gets back to the greed and ego thing," says Dean McSherry of DMC Hospitality, a Dallas hospitality management and consulting firm. "These are the true killers in the restaurant business."

Ginsburg dismisses such criticisms as superficial and stemming from people who lack the perception to see what he's trying to do with Voltaire. He says that at the base of every great restaurant is a series of concentric circles that includes a great chef, a professional who understands terrific service, and a professional who understands wine and spirits. "And between those concentric circles, you have the P.T. Barnum, that someone who can spin the plates, make the atmosphere lively, enchanting, attractive."

Ginsburg paints himself as that P.T. Barnum. But to some observers, this is precisely the problem. "He's probably more suited to the radio business than he is the restaurant business," explains one source who's familiar with his persona. "Especially given his personality. I hope it's not him at the front door. He just doesn't have the warmth or the style to be there hosting people."

Still, there's an undeniable feel to Voltaire. Even when the space is nothing but studs and dangling air ducts, it's possible to pick up the crisp earnestness of intention. It doesn't come across as loads of money thrown at the wall to see what sticks. It strikes with concerted commitment and the necessary resources to see it through.

"We don't have to hit in one day," Ginsburg stresses. "That's just the fortune of good fortune." He leans back and tosses up his hands. "We'll build it and see if they come."

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